Roman town uncovered in Britain as dig for new rail line reveals ‘exquisite’ ancient finds

A massive dig to lay the groundwork for Britain’s new high-speed rail network is helping to uncover rich new details about ancient Roman life.

Archaeologists praised Thursday’s discovery of an “extremely rare” and well-preserved human carving at a site in Buckinghamshire, England – the latest find from the digging being carried out as part of the country’s HS2 rail link.

The infrastructure project aims to connect London to the north of the country, but has been criticized as expensive and unnecessary. As part of the project, sites along the route have undergone archaeological investigation to shed light on the country’s past.

Earlier this week, HS2 Ltd, the government-funded public company behind the project, announced that a team had excavated a huge Roman trading settlement filled with historical treasures dating back to 43-70 AD.

Among the rare finds were a great Roman road, coins, jewelry, glass vessels, highly decorative pottery and even evidence of ancient makeup.

The wealthy Roman trading town, which grew out of an Iron Age village, is called “Blackgrounds” after the soil found there. The presence of an “important archaeological site” in the area has been known as far back as the 18th century, the team said in a press release, and the site has been excavated by some 80 archaeologists over the past 12 months.

“The site really has the potential to transform our understanding of the Roman landscape in the region and beyond,” said James West, the site manager for MOLA Headland Infrastructure.

A carved wooden figure from early Roman times was unearthed in a swampy ditch in Buckinghamshire, England.HS2

Findings suggest that the settlement had become more prosperous than initially thought, leading the inhabitants to adopt Roman customs, products and building techniques – as evidenced by workshops, kilns and preserved wells.

The site is in Northamptonshire, about a two-hour drive north of London, and is one of more than 100 under investigation as part of the rail project between the British capital and Birmingham.

Among them is Three Bridge Mill, in Buckinghamshire, where the “exquisite” wooden statue was found. The sculpture was buried for centuries in a water-filled ditch and was discovered in July 2021 by Infra Archeology archaeologists working for HS2’s contractor Fusion JV, before being made public on Thursday.

“The astonishing discovery of this wooden statue was totally unexpected, and the team has done an amazing job of restoring it intact,” said Iain Williamson, an archaeologist at Fusion JV.

According to the dates of the initial assessment, the “incredibly well-preserved” figure dates to early Roman times. The statue is just over 26 inches and 7 inches wide and is carved from a single piece of wood. While most of the figure is intact and well defined, the feet and arms below the elbows appear to have deteriorated over time.

The figure is thought to be wearing a knee-length tunic gathered at the waist, with the head turned slightly to the left. Remarkable details ‘bring the individual to life’ by retaining carvings on the head, suggesting that the figure was wearing a hat or had a haircut.

“This is a truly remarkable find that brings us face to face with our past. The quality of the carving is outstanding and the image is all the more exciting because organic objects from this period rarely survive,” said Jim Williams, senior scientific advisor and home worker for the HS2 route.

The occurrence of wooden figures in British prehistory and the Romano-British period is extremely rare.
HS2

What was initially thought to be just a tarnished piece of wood turned out to be an impressive clue to how Roman settlements in the area worked.

“This discovery helps us imagine what other wooden, vegetable or animal art and sculpture were created during this time,” he said.

The occurrence of wooden figures in British prehistory and the Romano-British period is extremely rare. Examples of carvings in the United Kingdom include a wooden branch discovered in a well in Northampton in 2019, believed to be a Roman cockatiel.

The figure “raises new questions about this site, who does the wooden figure represent, what was it used for and why was it important to the people who lived in this part of Buckinghamshire in the 1st century AD?” Williamson said.

Archaeologists believe it is possible that the figure was deliberately placed in the ditch rather than randomly thrown away. While experts aren’t sure what the sculpted artifact was used for, it’s speculated that the statue may have been used as an offering to the gods, much like previously discovered carvings.

The statue is being held by the Specialist Archeology Conservation Laboratory in York, where it will be examined and conserved. Radiocarbon dating of a small broken fragment of the sculpture provides an accurate date for the wood and may indicate the wood’s origin.

The HS2 program has unearthed a wealth of “high-quality finds” as part of the national high-speed rail project. Helen Wass, head of heritage at HS2, said she believes combining the infrastructure project with the archaeological dig could yield a wealth of information about the country’s past.

“We are committed to sharing our findings with communities and the public, to deepen our understanding of British history,” she said.

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